It’s no secret I’m big on etiquette, respectful behavior, the superior use of language, and appropriate attire. Doing what’s right simply because it’s right is a thing for me. I know there are multitudes of people who don’t care, but I do. I believe every person who acts with civility and respects others in what they say and what they wear is a drop of common sense in a completely self-absorbed world. Think about it: when it’s hotter than blazes outside, a few cool drops of water from a sprinkler that hit your skin is a moment of refreshment. It’s too bad it can’t be continual, but you’re grateful for that little bit.
That doesn’t mean I do everything just right, all the time. I confess that I am frequently a slob. I don’t always eat properly. When I’m alone and I think I’m unobserved, I can wolf down my food like a starving refugee. At those moments, I stand beside myself and think, “After all you’ve told people! Look at you!” And I don’t care. I can be unkind and unforgiving to cashiers and waiters. Disrespect is not my style, but I cannot tell a lie: I do fall into it sometimes. I tell audiences all the time that it takes the same amount of effort to put on a nice shirt and pair of pants as it does to pull on ill-fitting jeans and an ugly t-shirt, but I sometimes walk my dog in what is essentially my pajamas.
So I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue and correctness. I wasn’t schooled in perfect etiquette, and I’m not a person who would never use the wrong spoon for soup. I frequently forget to put my napkin in my lap because that was just not a practice that was reinforced in my home. I’ve only gotten into sending thank-you cards in the past few years, because that wasn’t modeled for me. No one taught me how to dress well, so sometimes I still really mess it up. I must make conscious decisions to do what’s courteous and mature and good.
Yes, I can be just terrible at the whole thing, so much so that some people would be astounded that I instruct in these issues and would probably call me a hypocrite. I ain’t perfect. I don’t come down those who aren't because I know myself—if it wasn’t poured into us when we were young, it doesn’t flow out with ease. But I attempt to do what’s right, and I hope others do once they know what’s right. It’s an act of grace, of refreshment, and I appreciate it so much.
Interesting conversation with a security guard who commented on the way employees dressed. “I can always tell the people in power,” she said, “by their clothes. Even if they’re casual, they look put together.” As we stood and talked, she’d nod as executives and other workers leaving for the evening passed by, and she offered her standard goodnight.
“You see?” she said to me about a woman in a simple suit. “She looks like she has authority.” I took a mental note—that person was NOT one in authority, but an employee who frequented the president’s office to discuss company business.
“Some of these people—they look like they couldn’t be bothered to comb their hair. They look terrible. People used to dress up for work. They dressed for the position they were in. None of the folks from X company look like they care about their work. Or their lives.” She was right: numerous workers were streaming out the door, many of them looking as though they had been working in the yard or were about to help a friend pack to move to a new house.
You may think this is a good thing. It’s certainly very egalitarian when everyone looks as dressed down—or as slovenly—as the next person. But it also makes those who think about their attire stand out like glow lights. They look competent, professional, and ready for something, while others look ready for bed. Come to think of it, they're glowing too—with the wrong message.
You may not care about how you look, but do you really think no one notices? If the security guard notices, perhaps your boss does, too.
We hear so much about the need for confidence in order to succeed, and I won’t dispute it—when you feel good about what you’re doing, how much you know, and your level of assurance as to your ability and worth is strong, you stand a far better chance at moving forward than someone cowering in a cubicle, wondering if it’s safe to come out and say something.
But sometimes, there’s just no accessing that confidence we’re supposed to be able to muster up. We’ve had a bad day, or a tough month, or a really terrible year (or more) and the confidence chip is just worn out. That’s when you have to shine it on, as we used to say—pull together all your skills in pretending and just go for it. I say you have to give that Academy Award-winning performance. Act as though there’s a camera trained on you and Steven Spielberg has just called out, “ACTION!”
We all have the ability to pull it together in this way. We did it as children—we became princesses or Indian chiefs or whatever it was we were playing at the time. As I remember, I played teacher quite effectively, long before I knew how to read. I lined up all my stuffed animals in chairs and told them to open their books and read with me, and I spit out what I thought words on paper sounded like, which was some sort of gibberish-y soundings. I wasn’t a teacher. I didn’t even know the connection between written and spoken language, but by golly, I pretended like I was Teacher of the Year.
I haven’t lost that inner child, and neither have you. When you’re faced with something that throws you, pretend you know what to do. Ask yourself, “What would I do if I actually KNEW what to do?” Play it out as though you’re [insert favorite actor here] and play the part. Daniel Craig pretends he’s James Bond quite effectively, and for all we know he’s painfully shy and kind of dumb. Lucy Liu is playing a version of Watson in CBS’s updated Sherlock Holmes drama, but she’s not a surgeon—and she’s not a vicious fighter like she played in “Kill Bill,” either. Maybe she’s really the quiet type who has a lot of cats; we don’t know. I’ve met recognizable actors who play very commanding roles, such as judges, and sound tremendously smart on television, but in “real life” they are as ditzy and as clueless as the rest of us.
So put on your white gloves and throw up those jazz hands, people! “Fake it ‘til you make it,” the saying goes, but I just say pretend—and get ready to make that acceptance speech when they call out your name as best supporting actor in a dramatic role.